Medicine’s Most Important Question in the Long Term Will Take Most People By Surprise: “What Is a Body?”

When we look to medicine’s future, we tend to think in terms of technological advancements such as exotic transplant surgeries and gene-centered treatments. But in the long term, some very different kinds of concerns become pivotally important. In an earlier post, I emphasized the essential role that a greater maturity in our relationship to death will necessarily play in health care that is ultimately life-affirming. There is also a strikingly basic question that medicine’s future will ultimately depend on.

That question: “What is a body?” Today we are unlikely to even recognize it as a question, much less an important question. And even if we do recognize the question’s importance, we are only beginning to find ways to usefully frame it, and are even farther from providing useful answers.

On the surface, the “what is a body?” question might seem simple to answer.
We need only look down; there it is. In fact, the question is not at all simple. Certainly the question is perplexing philosophically. The body is at once something we have and something we are—not an easy fact to reconcile. And the question increasingly confronts us in eminently practical ways—when we consider the body scientifically and medically. We are used to inquiring about how neurons work, about the biochemistry of digestion, or about the role of genes in disease. But increasingly we recognize that we have only begun to understand the body’s rich systemic complexity.

Part of the reason we have more to discover is simply that there is research yet to be done. But the reason that past views have been incomplete also has to do with how we think. Because Modern Age perspective tends to view a machine model of understanding as sufficient and culminating, we have no reason to think that the gears-and-pulleys thinking of traditional anatomy and physiology would not be sufficient.
Culturally mature perspective argues otherwise. It emphasizes the importance of understanding in ways that are more complex—and complex not just in the sense of being more complicated, but more dynamic and systemic.

The need for a more complete answer to the “what is a body” question in medicine starts with the simple recognition that we are not just machines, we are living beings. Add to this the recognition that if health and healing are about anything, they are about the enhancing of life, and we begin to get closer to the challenge at hand. We’ve always known at some level that healing was more complex than fixing broken anatomy. I am reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s quip, “God heals and the doctor takes the fees.” But before now, the implications of seeing how deeply this is so have been more than we could have handled. In the future, this recognition should become increasingly essential to effective treatment.

Reflections in an earlier post about the need to think in more complete ways about intelligence further highlight this need to bring new sophistication to how we think about the human body. Bodily knowing—intelligence that reflects being in touch with our bodies—comes to play an integral role with culturally mature perspective’s more encompassing picture of intelligence. When we think of the body as a source not just of experience, but of “intelligence,” what it means to have a body takes on a decidedly more vital kind of significance.

When we step back and put the role of body intelligence in evolutionary perspective, and we encounter even more striking evidence that our current picture of the body is limited. Creative Systems Theory describes how, with earliest cultural times, the body was intelligence’s most defining modality—to not know the dances and songs of one’s tribe was unthinkable. It also describes how, with each succeeding cultural stage, we have become further distanced from the body as a kind of knowing. Note how, with this picture, seeing our current understanding of the body as sufficient becomes particularly suspect. With Modern Age perspective, the body is a distant presence at best—visible only from the far side of Descartes’ conceptual split. Today, to talk of the body as having intelligence feels strange. I think of how disconnected we can be from bodily experience in modern times as a particularly consequential kind of Transitional Absurdity.

In my book Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future I fill out this evolutionary picture by chronicling how the ways that health and healing are perceived in any time in history reflect the way body intelligence predictably manifests with that cultural stage. We see a progression from the body described in terms of our relationship with nature (in tribal cultures), as interplays of bodily “energy” (with the early rise of civilizations), as intermingling visceral humors (as in the Middle Ages) , through today’s more expressly physical conception of the body. How we have thought about the roots of disorder has followed a related progression—from disconnection from tribe and nature, to imbalances between vital forces, to moral/societal transgression, to our modern disease model of medicine.

Which is the real body? Were early conceptions simply naïve? In major ways, certainly they were—especially when it comes to implications for health and healing. The greater portion of the knowledge we draw on today, including discoveries as basic as the role of microbes in disease, is remarkably recent. But Integrative Meta-perspective’s more encompassing picture suggests that earlier ways of understanding the body may also have things to teach. Indeed, given that modern cultural realities have inherently the weakest connection with bodily experience, we might expect earlier ways of thinking about the body to provide some particularly useful insights.

When it comes to health care, earlier views of the body at the least point toward the importance of including more than just physical factors in our considerations. A person might object that concerns given greatest consideration in earlier times—such as a person’s felt relationship with nature, with other people, or with the spiritual—had more to do with psychology than medicine—and at least from an isolatedly “physical body” perspective, that would be accurate. But when our thinking starts to bridge mind and body, these concerns begin to have larger consequences. If the future of medicine is about anything, it is about learning to address the body as somebody.

Medicine can also learn from how the “bodies” of early cultural stages suggest a more animated picture of bodily functioning. Increasingly today we recognize that aspects of the body other than just the nervous system are “intelligent”—in the sense that they learn and also direct complex evolving processes. I think in particular of the immune system (which, among other things, constantly creates new anti- bodies to fight disease), the digestive system (which manages an intricate ecosystem of supportive microorganisms), and the endocrine system (that organizes complex hormonal responses). We are just beginning to grasp what this more dynamic—indeed, “creative”—picture of bodily response may mean for the future of medicine. But we can be sure that engaging the body as somebody must also better include the whole of how we, as bodies, choose, learn and communicate.

And specific interventions from earlier times can be at least provocative—perhaps inviting us to entertain options we might not have thought of. For example, I find it fascinating that while Western medicine has begun to make limited use of acupuncture, it has yet to explain acupuncture’s effectiveness in any satisfying way. We can’t help but wonder what even greater mysteries we have yet to explain—or even recognize.

It is important to appreciate (as Cultural Maturity’s more encompassing perspective makes clear) that we’ve never really just studied the body—objectively stood back from it—even the modern scientific body. We’ve always studied mind/bodies, albeit of different sorts. And being mind/bodies ourselves, we’ve never studied the body from a purely objective perspective. Creative Systems Theory proposes that how we have conceived of the body in recent times reflects a particular time-relative relationship between mind and body. It also proposes that this felt relationship is changing. I suspect that in the twenty-first century, the “what is a body?” question will provide many of medicine’s—and humanity’s—most dramatic and important new learnings.